Vermont Roots Migration Survey: The Stayers, The Leavers And The Returnees

May 13, 2015

When a group of researchers started the Vermont Roots Migration Survey, they hoped to get 75 responses. The final tally was about 50 times that. The survey asked people who attended high school while residing in Vermont questions about where they've lived since graduating, why they left, why they returned or why they stayed.

Now that they've been able to tabulate the results, Cheryl Morse, a professor of geography at the University of Vermont, and Jill Mudgett, a historian for the project, joined Vermont Edition to talk about what they've found and how the data can be used.

How the survey came about

Mudgett says that at a conference, she and three other colleagues were talking after a session. “We were all academics who were born and raised [in Vermont] … We were talking about the fact that if you did a survey of the faculty at any Burlington colleges, most of those faculty aren’t from here,” says Mudgett. “So we found ourselves to be in this unique group of people and we started to wonder about the larger implications of that, beyond academics among us, so [Morse] had the idea to put together the survey.”

On why they think they received so many responses

“I think it’s because everybody has not just one story about migration, but they also have their sister’s, their cousin’s, generations before them … So there are so many stories about leaving, staying home and coming home,” says Morse. “As well, rural out-migration is an issue that is important to the state, important to the nation, and it’s actually a global process. So, at many different scales this is something that holds great meaning for people.”

"Vermonters like to talk about Vermont. I think that Vermont is uniquely situated to participate in what is in fact a national conversation about migration patterns, particularly from rural areas, because our history has always been wrapped up in this worry about migration." - Cheryl Morse, professor of geography at the University of Vermont

“Vermonters like to talk about Vermont,” adds Morse. “I think that Vermont is uniquely situated to participate in what is in fact a national conversation about migration patterns, particularly from rural areas, because our history has always been wrapped up in this worry about migration.”

Mudgett says that if you take the history of migration within the state and couple that with the fact that Vermont has a really strong state identity, it positions Vermonters to have a strong voice in the discussion of migration. “Why [do] people stay, why do people go and why does it matter? Does it even matter? If people are willing to come up from Massachusetts and Connecticut, for example, does it even matter that our local-born kids want to leave?” she asks.

Why do people leave?

Morse says that her team expected the majority of the answers to have to do with lack of job opportunities in Vermont and the high cost of living. “In fact, those two things are present in our responses, but they don’t even reach 40 percent of responses,” she says. “What we found instead is that for leavers, it’s a very complex decision that incorporates several different factors. And they range from the very, very personal, like, ‘I love the ocean.’ If you love the ocean, we can’t deliver – there’s not much we can do about that. And then it ranges all the way to, ‘I don’t like Vermont’s politics anymore.’”

"What we found instead is that for leavers, it's a very complex decision that incorporates several different factors. And they range from the very, very personal, like, 'I love the ocean.' ... To, 'I don't like Vermont's politics anymore.'" - Cheryl Morse

She adds that respondents attributed their flight to “The cost of living is too high in Vermont” as frequently as “Vermont’s cold weather is intolerable.” Both reasons received 18 percent of the votes.

Why do people stay?

Mudgett says that a lot of people’s reasons for staying weren’t always rational, and involved “decision making that always doesn’t tie to a person’s economic status. What do you do if you just don’t want to leave?” Morse adds that they were surprised to find that survey-takers chose “I enjoy Vermont’s landscape” 70 percent of the time, whereas “I’m staying here to be with my family” got 62 percent.

“Personally, I’m really interested in this field of environmental psychology,” says Mudgett. “People who look at children say that the environment of the 7- to 9-year-old child really forms what’s normal for that child. So if you grew up in Vermont … even if you live in Arizona as an adult, even if you like that landscape, it’s not your center point of reference. It’s always other. And where you’re from sort of forms your core of what’s a normal, natural environment. So that’s part of what is suspect is going on here.”

Morse says a lot of the answers were very matter-of-fact, like, “Why would I leave? This is my home.” She says heritage seemed to be a very big part of the reason why people stayed. “That I’m an ‘x’ generation Vermont, that’s really strong for some people. And there’s a sense of almost – not obligation – but an homage to heritage that’s embedded,” she says.

"People who look at children say that the environment of the 7- to 9-year-old child really forms what's normal for that child. So if you grew up in Vermont ... even if you live in Arizona as an adult, even if you like that landscape, it's not your center point of reference." - Jill Mudgett, historian

Mudgett says that the survey participants were highly educated and that over 50 percent of them left the state, but that if she were to expand the survey she would want to ask people if their parents were born in Vermont. “If your parents came from somewhere else and raised you in Vermont, even if you love Vermont and all the aspects of it, it becomes easy for you to grow up and migrate,” she says. “You find a place you like and you move there, like mom and dad did. But if your parents are from here and never have left, and if your grandparents are from here and never have left, it becomes much harder to do that – to leave.”

"If your parents came from somewhere else and raised you in Vermont, even if you love Vermont and all the aspects of it, it becomes easy for you to grow up and migrate." - Jill Mudgett

Why do people leave and then come back?

Morse says that many of those who returned to Vermont made a conscious effort to try to make it back after they left. “But I think we’d be remiss if we categorized all the returnees [as] happy now that they’re back in Vermont,” she says. “There are some people who are really dissatisfied, who came back for unfortunate reasons or came back and then were disappointed by what they experienced. So those folks have a voice in the survey as well.” 

How are people using the data they gathered?

"I think [the data] helps individual people situate their own experience amongst a broader group of Vermonters, and that's always an interesting process." - Cheryl Morse

“We’ve already spoken with the Agency of Commerce and the Vermont Historical Society, says Morse. “I think there are a lot of groups of people who have social, environmental, educational and agricultural viewpoints who are trying to see what they can learn from this survey, so they can adjust their programming or their goals for what they are doing.” Morse says there are certainly a lot of policy opportunities to be had with the data, but that she hopes it can reach farther than that. “I think it helps individual people situate their own experience amongst a broader group of Vermonters, and that’s always an interesting process,” she says.

Learn more about the survey and view the results here.